You can’t farm with your arms crossed

The best analogy I can give to training farmers on improved rice farming techniques is as follows.

A Nebraskan goes to New York City and tries to tell as many people as she can that scientists have analytically shown that Chicago-style deep dish pizza is the most delicious pizza in the world. What’s the nicest reply she’ll get?

“Fuck off”

And you know what she’ll tell her friends when she gets back to Nebraska?

“It’s true what they say about New Yorkers”

But she believes the science.

Bear with her while she tries to open up a Chicago-style pizza dive in the heart of New York. Stay with this country mouse while she makes friends and a home in the big city- adapting to the nature of the east coast while maintaining her gentle mid-west demeanor.

For a couple of months I was in a real slump, to be honest. Perhaps slump doesn’t necessarily capture the gravity that was holding me down. The rainy season was short and late and no one had the excess energy to spare learning new techniques. I love the cultural exchange, but I have been doing that the past year, you know? Every so often I would run into someone on a bus or something that had a success story- but when I would ask for their advice it would be something along the lines of “start small, do a demo plot”.

Cue sinking feeling.

Demo plots are great and all, but constrained by seasons, that only leaves time for a demo-plot and then a 9 month dry season until the next rainy season to possibly maybe train somebody. And you know, that is something I knew going into this whole thing. So then I would spiral, angry at myself for being so discontent. What the hell did I expect?

I’m not sure I was I lacking motivation- but I couldn’t even figure out what to motivate myself to do.  Energy without direction was driving me nuts. I would go to the fields to just do manual labor- it feels so good to be tired at the end of a day.

The nearest volunteer, Joe, was climbing up as I was reaching the bottom, and he extended his hand- so to speak. He was starting an SRI demo plot near his home, and asked if I could help since I had done one back in September (off-season).

I am not sure how to get across how difficult that must have been. With so few tangible sources of accomplishment, it’s almost certainly more tempting to try alone and possibly fail than to share a project.

Feeling little ownership over the demo-plots, I stubbornly maintained my state of pouting. But you can’t farm with your arms crossed. The demo plot gave me something to care about, to dream about. Joe’s passion for the project was incessant and contagious, always referring to it as “ours”. I came to care for the farmers we were working around, and as the rice grew my sleepy muscle of optimism stretched out and with a big yawn began to wake up.

The more I got out and worked, the more people I met and that inertia took me to other towns, developing new and wiggle-with-giddiness relationships.

It’s not an easy role for me- being the one jumping up and down to show the possibility of learning new techniques rather than being the technical training lady I want to be. And even as I have written this post my eyes have welled up a few times- but as I finish up I’ve got a little grin on my face. And I am smiling because when I think about it, this is a job for a tireless dreamer and ooooh baby I have been training my whole life for it.

Joe weeding our demo-plot. Rice tillers are called “zanambary” in Malagasy, directly translating to “the children of rice”. So many healthy babies! 


The family I spent the day with while visiting Madirobe- they didn’t laugh at my jokes but they cracked up for 5 minutes when I said “fart” after a kid farted. They fed me and invited me in with the standard generous hospitality of Sakalava folks and we chatted the whole day through. 
A new friend and her kid- we met when I was wandering around and she invited me to work in the field with her. She took a full day off to take me to Madirobe and meet her family and see the other land she works. She’s only 18 but has that mom-sense that always blows my mind. 



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Deborah Black says:

    As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog entry today. Your candor about your lack of direction and “state of pouting” simultaneously disquieted and tickled me. Adapting to and making changes in a culture other than one’s own is a monumental task indeed and you, my dreamer friend, are so incredibly suited for the job. I know nothing about growing rice, but that plot looks fantastic! I do know something about loving what you’re doing, and your smile in the last picture tells me that you are in the right place.


    1. Madame- I really appreciate your comment. I have probably read it 10 times since you sent it. It helps me to know you’re there believing in me even when I don’t feel it myself. Thanks a lot.


  2. Lyndle says:

    I am really impressed by what you are doing and how hard you are working. Two years sounds long but in agriculture it’s so short. If you want to read an entertaining book about the experience of volunteering, check out ‘where the hell is Tuvalu’ or ‘The People’s Lawyer’ (same book) by Philip Ells. He describes similar emotions even though he’s in a completely different context.


  3. I will definitely have to check it out! Thanks for the recommendation.


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